Lu­ciano Pradal, the chest­nut roaster

On cold Ot­tawa days, vis­i­tors to the By­ward Mar­ket find that Lu­ciano Pradal’s ch­est­nuts can warm their hands and hearts.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - BRUCE DEACHMAN Visit ot­tawac­i­t­i­zen.com/mil­lion to see more pho­tos and lis­ten to Lu­ciano Pradal or to see past sto­ries.

Ven­dor warms hearts and hands, and feeds souls,

‘Chest­nuts ba­si­cally saved gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion from famine, be­cause it’s a su­per-food. A tree can pro­duce hundreds of pounds of chest­nuts.’

n a grey Satur­day in Novem­ber, vis­i­tors to the By­ward Mar­ket gather around Lu­ciano Pradal’s out­door cart the way school­child­ren cir­cle a sto­ry­teller. They are at­tracted by the warmth of the wood char­coal burn­ing in his bar­be­cue, the heavy aroma of the chest­nuts he’s roast­ing, and by his deep and thick ac­cent, as he switches be­tween English, French and his na­tive Ital­ian.

He has put a sin­gle roasted ch­est­nut in a folded nap­kin, and urges a passerby to put it in his pocket. The hu­mid­ity, he says, will mix with the fi­bre and starches in the nut to give it a rich, creamy tex­ture. If you eat it right away, he warns, it will be too crunchy.

Many of the peo­ple who stop, ei­ther for a sin­gle ch­est­nut or, for five dol­lars, a soup can’s worth, are try­ing them for the first time. For oth­ers, though, the brief en­gage­ment is a re­minder of some past en­counter — with a street ven­dor in Paris, per­haps, or a youth­ful week­end so­journ to Man­hat­tan. What­ever the par­tic­u­lars, the power of these chest­nuts — “the bread of the poor,” he calls them — to un­cover mem­o­ries long for­got­ten is re­mark­able, and Lu­ciano’s cus­tomers seem al­most obliged to share their rem­i­nis­cences with him.

“Make a wish,” he tells them as they slip the warm pack­ages into their pock­ets.

■ Lu­ciano’s first ex­pe­ri­ence with roasted chest­nuts oc­curred more than 60 years ago, in the Ital­ian vil­lage of Vit­to­rio Veneto, north of Venice, where he grew up. There was no cen­tral heat­ing, he re­calls, and so his mother, wid­owed by the Sec­ond World War’s Rus­sian front when Lu­ciano was just a baby, would be up early, cook­ing on the stove.

He re­mem­bers, too, al­ways wear­ing shorts, even on cold days. The war had just ended, and they had no money for long pants, and when he left for school, his mother would hand him chest­nuts to put in his pock­ets.

“That was my break­fast,” he says, “and on the way to school they would keep my hands warm.

“The chest­nuts were part of our cul­ture.”

By the time he was 14 he was work­ing in a bak­ery, and at 19 he had moved to Turin and be­come a baker and pas­try technician. Five years later, in 1966, he em­i­grated to Canada, land­ing in Ot­tawa and work­ing in bak­eries and on con­struc­tion sites for a few years un­til he was hired as a sta­tion­ary en­gi­neer with the fed­eral pub­lic ser­vice, tak­ing care of com­mer­cial build­ings. He mar­ried, raised two chil­dren, and worked in the same job for close to 35 years be­fore re­tir­ing four years ago.

Re­tire­ment has not slowed him, though. At 69, he wakes up at five o’clock each day and, af­ter stretch­ing, takes an hour-long walk with a cou­ple of his Car­ling­ton neigh­bours. He tends vegetable gar­dens at Villa Mar­coni, a long-term care fa­cil­ity. He greets vis­i­tors at the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion and the Cana­dian War Mu­seum. He vol­un­teers for the an­nual Jane’s Walk through Ot­tawa neigh­bour­hoods, and also serves through­out the year as a tour guide for var­i­ous op­er­a­tors, in­clud­ing the City of Ot­tawa, show­ing tourists around the cap­i­tal.

“I love to so­cial­ize,” he says. “I’m a peo­ple per­son. I love to talk, to in­ter­act, to chat, to re­spect.”

The ch­est­nut busi­ness started two win­ters ago, first on Pre­ston Street and then in the By­ward Mar­ket, in front of La Bot­tega Ni­cas­tro on Ge­orge Street. He’s there ev­ery Fri­day, Satur­day and Sun­day. Last year he sold chest­nuts from Septem­ber to March. This year, he says, he may just work un­til Christ­mas.

He swears by their health ben­e­fits: they con­tain no gluten or choles­terol, very lit­tle fat, and are the only nut with vi­ta­min C. Ad­di­tion­ally, along­side the roasted chest­nuts he sells, pa­trons may find free sam­ples of the castag­nac­cio he makes with ch­est­nut flour, raisins, pine nuts, wal­nuts, olive oil, water and rose­mary. “It’s the old­est power bar,” he says.

He can also tell you his recipe for liqueur-soaked chest­nuts. “They give a kick to your me­tab­o­lism.”

“Chest­nuts,” he adds, “ba­si­cally saved gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion from famine, be­cause it’s a su­per-food. A tree can pro­duce hundreds of pounds of chest­nuts.

“Ev­ery­body — Asian, Arabs, Euro­pean, African, South Amer­i­can — they know about chest­nuts, and they love them.”

And with his govern­ment pen­sion and modest life­style, he ad­mits he doesn’t rely on his in­come from sell­ing chest­nuts.

“But when you give a child warm chest­nuts to put in his pocket, and you see his face light up, to me there is no price for that.

“Freshly roasted chest­nuts ... what do you need more than that in life?” Through pro­files here and online, Bruce Deachman un­cov­ers the peo­ple who bring Ot­tawa to life; peo­ple who ex­hibit an un­usual pas­sion or ob­ses­sion. Do you know some­one who is one in a mil­lion? A friend who keeps pi­geons? A ne­ice who does noth­ing but en­ter con­tests? Email the de­tails to bdeach­man@ot­tawac­i­t­i­zen.com.

PHO­TOS BY BRUCE DEACHMAN, THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

This is Lu­ciano Pradal’s third win­ter roast­ing and sell­ing chest­nuts in the By­ward Mar­ket. ‘I love to so­cial­ize,’ he says.

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